The Family

January 10, 2020

familyIf Oscar nominations were the sole criterion for evaluating foreign filmmakers, Italy’s Ettore Scola would be right at the top of the list.

IIn the last 10 years, he’s had nominations in the best foreign language film category for A Special Day in 1977 and Le Bal in 1983. This year, he has another movie in the Oscar circle: The Family.

Scola’s busy decade has also included La Nuit de Varennes and the unsuccessful Jack Lemmon­/Marcello Mastroianni movie, Macaroni. There is some very good work there, and in a way The Family is the culmination of this winning streak. This is one of those big-canvas movies, a film that spans 80 years in the life of a family of the 20th century.

But Scola has made a crucial decision in the way he wants to look at this time. The entire film is set inside the house of an upper-middle class family. But for brief glimpses outside the window, we never see the outside world.

And yet the people who pass through the portals embody the changing moods of Italian society. There’s gentility and privilege in the early scenes, the specter of fascism during Mussolini’s rise, and the anger of the 1960s, all brought in by various characters from different generations.

The character who occupies the central position throughout the years is Carlo, whose baptism marks the film’s opening. (He is played as a young man by Andrea Occhipinti, as an older man by Vittorio Gassman.) Carlo grows up into a careful, non­ adventurous man, as befits his status as an observer.

The one great tragedy in his life was a love affair with a vital, exotic woman (Fanny Ardant); but he gave her up, and married her simple sister (Stefania Sandrelli) instead. He is happy in his marriage and yet, sometimes he wonders. . . .

He is always surrounded by colorful family members, such as the three nutty aunts who spend their lives bickering, as by ritual; the ne’er-­do-well younger brother, who will be a lifelong pain in the neck and who eventually writes a book called Waste: A Life Story; the good son who touchingly realizes he’s the dull­ witted one in the family.

Scola saunters through the 80 years in just a little over two hours, sometimes threatening sketchiness but almost always capturing the crucial times. The conversations in the movie frequently take place while the characters are eating, or engaged in some other ritual of day-­to-day living, as though to emphasize the power of small realities as opposed to large historical events.

Scola’s finest work comes in the sequence when Carlo finds himself alone in the house with his old flame. Their connection is still strong, but she leaves his life in just the way she left it many years before, with a painful walk down the stairway (the only two times we see that part of the house). It’s moments such as these that create the rich atmosphere alive within those old walls.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Scola had a long and successful career, all right, including the 1974 film We All Loved Each Other So Much. This film has not left a lasting impression on me, but I like the sound of the subplot with Fanny Ardant.

Confidentially Yours

August 28, 2012

Francois Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours would like to be a good bottle of champagne: giddy, nutty and dry. But Truffaut may have left the cork out of the bottle too long.

He’s been devoting his time to dark, serious movies lately—such as the little-seen The Green Room and The Woman Next Door—and perhaps he’s forgotten how to create his special kind of magic.

Not that Truffaut has ever been merely bubbly; but even in primarily dramatic movies such as Jules and Jim and Day for Night, he conveys a wonderful sense of the joys of life and the movies, although those joys sometimes turn out to be fleeting.

Confidentially Yours self-consciously tries to recapture some of the magic; it’s a knockabout whodunit, with lots of clever twists and turns and a pair of engaging performances from Fanny Ardant and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

It’s being pushed as a kind of homage to the American film noir genre that Truffaut loved so much when he was a young film critic. Actually, this movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the feverish fatalism of film noir; it’s much more of a lark. And Truffaut has always been too loose-limbed a director to really recreate an American style, which he tries to do periodically. He’s much more successful on his own idiosyncratic turf.

Anyway, Trintignant plays a businessman who is accused of murder. The evidence is persuasive: First his wife’s lover is found shot to death; then just a few hours later, Trintignant’s wife is herself the victim of the killer.

We can’t be absolutely sure that Trintignant is not guilty; that’s part of the tease. So the focus shifts to his feisty secretary (Ardant), who determinedly sets out to find the murderer herself—while the boss hides out in the rear of his realty office.

Misadventures ensue as Ardant somehow bumbles her way to the solution. Confidentially Yours is something of a showcase for the leggy Ardant, who is Truffaut’s current discovery. She gets to go undercover, crack wise, and generally handle herself as a Rosalind Russell-style girl Friday, whose combative relationship with her boss may be hiding more affectionate feelings.

She proves more resourceful than the local police—who aren’t amused when she keeps turning up at the scenes of murders.

If the police are not amused, the viewer may be, as Truffaut alternates the detective work with whimsical interludes. It’s all sort of cute and predictable, and it’s enjoyable as a cat-and-mouse exercise, if a rather flat one.

But Truffaut seems to be trying a bit too hard to make up for his recent moody work; as though he were nudging the audience and saying, “See? I can still be charming.” There were times when I had the feeling we were being clobbered over the head with light-heartedness. And that isn’t a good feeling.

First published in the Herald, January 26, 1984

Truffaut did not survive the year, and this was his last film, although nobody knew that at the time. I have never watched it again. If it’s not one of his best films—and his best films are among the best anybody ever made—at least it stands as a tribute to a woman, and a tribute to movies, which are two things Truffaut knew something about. I think I know what I mean by “loose-limbed” style, even if I don’t express it particularly well in the space of a newspaper review. Truffaut was rigorous, but even when he would do a Hitchcock or a science-fiction picture (or a film noir, as in Mississippi Mermaid), the results didn’t really resemble the work of his models, but they did look like Truffaut movies.